Hurricane Hugo survival
Shelley and I arrived with Vixen 11 ( A Herreshof New York 40)from St Martin about a month before Hugo into West End Tortola. As I am sure you will remember the previous hurricane seasons had been pretty benevolent by comparison and as a result most people had become probably a little blasé about Storms..
When It looked like we were potentially on track for a hit or near miss we started preparing.
First decision as always was do we run or stay.
In the Northern Caribbean this is always a tough one especially with a classic schooner with limited engine power and range along with low freeboard (VIXEN while a stunning sailboat was a submarine at the best of times, we also had to consider that the Owner wanted her in St Thomas). On reflection now with hindsight I would have sailed down to the ABC’s or San Blas. Her draught eliminated virtually all hurricane holes as did the fact that as many have commented they are full of Bareboat which are missiles with no ground tackle, even more so now with Cats. As such we elected to use Sopers Hole.
We stripped the boat on deck completely and removed anything that could move down to life rings and life-raft which we set up close to where we could use but not exposed to winds so in an emergency they were still available.
Next we started laying ground tackle. 4 anchors set 2 on each chain rode in a Y to the planned prevailing winds. I Dove on these and then set ground chains to old moorings on the bottom as well so ended up with 8 points on the bottom I was attached to and then two rising chains. We brought these to a common “ring” or grommet of inch chain doubled. We brought rising chains up from this and then attached nylon 20- 40MM lines (8 of) To the bow with major chafe protection. At the time I thought I was going completely over the top but in hindsight I am very glad we were so well prepared. At this point the boat could have been shredded but no way was she about to become detached from the bottom.
My Good friend Ted Greenwald came in on Water Spirit (30m Feadship Sport Fisherman and anchored abeam). We helped him do the same, diving on his gear and laying cross linkage to moorings and bottom chains. We were ready.
Next of course the usual happened and a heap of ill prepared boats appeared and threw out an anchor and scarpered. Some of these ahead of us. Notably one Gulfstar Motor sailor which set one anchor ahead of us. So we were as ready as could be. We set up coms gear and set an additional temp antenna for the SSB in case we lost the main antenna. (These are days before cells and satellites were commonly available)
The winds started to pick up and by the time they hit 70 knots the ill prepared were already being washed up on Great and little thatch or blown out of the cut. The winds were bouncing off Frenchman’s Quay and West end and they were starting to blow smoke and howl. We were regularly checking the bow for chafe and doing it by crawling down the deck. Standing wasn’t an option. You could feel the sand and salt in the air. By now Vixen was taking knock downs port and starboard as the wind hit from either side and the bow, but she was riding well and all gear was secure and holding.
We were acting as a relay for Visar as they could not reach out to St John and Jost. More boats started to break free including an Irwin who had get this ( kept charter guest aboard as they thought it would be a unique experience….). It was. They ended up on Frenchmans quay slipway bent around the docks blown ashore and luckily made it safely to shelter in part of the Soper's hole marina buildings.
The wind built throughout the night and it was now truly horrific. We could see a 20 ft sailboat just before dusk spiralling afloat right way up and upside down its mooring. Dinghies on stern’s were flying horizontally before they disappeared. Bareboat sails unfurling, and shredding and rigs came down and boats dragged. A horror movie. Our friends Paul and Judy up on the hill had a grandstand view.
At some point we lost one of the nylon rode’s chafing on the bowsprit and We replaced it hanging over the bow. The night wore on with patterns of a howl as the wind blew smoke and then a knock down as it bounced of the hills. The radio chatter was awful with Maydays al the time ashore and afloat as the VHF’s started to break down and aerials disappeared. We had settled into a pattern, scared yes, but feeling relative secure knowing what we had in place.
Vixen was handling it well and sitting cleanly in the appalling conditions. Then suddenly we were not weather cocking properly to the wind and taking more severe hits. We couldn’t understand this and though something must have happened to the riding gear so went forward wearing a mask an snorkel as you couldn’t be bare faced in the winds and driving conditions.
I looked down at the bow and to my surprise saw a CQR hooked onto one of the nylon warps that were coming from out chains . It wasn’t my CQR. It took me a while to process this in the conditions as I couldn’t understand it. I looked astern and could just make out the Gulfstar 60 motor sailor now hanging behind us and see the chain from the CQR running down the Hull on the Port side.
Her Anchor had run up one of our ground chains jumped the ring somehow and ended up on a nylon bridle. Bizarre. We had no choice, nobody was aboard ( we had established that before the storm hit when we went to ask them to move). I took a knife and touched the nylong bridle. It exploded it from of my eyes under immense strain. ( She ended up washed up on Great Thatch and was salvageable) .
The conditions were too severe to try and replace that bridle.
Water Spirit was riding well and Ted Had the engines on and was easing strain as he motored ahead in the gusts. At one point catching some rubbish in a prop. His bright deck lights gave us a point of reference so we could see position.
It was a difficult night with many stories to tell and intense radio traffic we relayed for VISAR with awful reports from many anchorages of friends boats destroyed or sunk. The dawn brought winds dropping to 80-90 knots and its semed quite reasonable and we started cleaning up and assessing the damage. By the time they hit 70 we were well into recover mode. As the winds continued to drop and we surveyed damage around us we realised how lucky we were. We had Blown off prot and starboard nav light boards. The Varnish on the masts was sanded from the sandspit ready for a coat and we had a whole heap of ground gear to untangle. Other than that no damage at all. All around us was devastation, roads were closed and washed away, power was off and boats were destroyed.
I revovered the Ground tackle over 3 days. Chain was strectched to be unusable ( The links were flattened) so that you could “break it” bend it like lengths of mild steel in places. One Danforth Anchor which had buried so deep I need a shovel to get it out in 60ft was bent backwards.
The Old Luke was fine but otherwise we replaced everything.
In the following weeks we were often asked where we were for the hurricane as Vixen looked stunning and was within two weeks back in boat show condition. We felt almost guilty. She won the Best crew operated yacht for her condition in the boat show a month or two later.
The Island greened back up and boats returned but nobody who went through that ever took hurricanes anything but seriously again. Boats were littered in bays some recoverable some not. Boatyards were a mess. It was the start of digging holes for keels.
The Owners House (Dr Schimert) was destroyed on St Thomas and completely blown apart. His comment was “Well Captain let’s look at my boat, I hope its fared better”
He was a very happy man.
On reflection we were very lucky. The Storm tracked where we plotted it would so West End did not get any seas and only the winds. If we had got that wrong we would have been in serious trouble. The acceleration zone produced gusts I have never seen again and wind strengths in them I would hate to estimate, but sufficient to knock us down and blow smoke.
Hurricanes have got worse and IRMA for example was not survivable.
As I am sure you know damage increases by the square of wind speed. Cats have become commonplace and are a nightmare in bad weather let alone a storm and there is no hurricane hole anywhere in the Caribbean I would try and ride a storm out today.
My advice to any captain is simply get out before. The best place to be in a hurricane is somewhere else. On the other hand weather tracking is far more accurate and with current technology getting out is much easier. Having said that you would not find me anywhere in the chain between July and October.
These days my idea of a Hurricane hole is Boca Del Toro in Panama.
[table][tr]Formed[td]September 10, 1989[tr]Dissipated[td]September 25, 1989[tr][td](Extratropical
after September 22)[tr][td][tr][td][tr]Highest winds[td]1-minute sustained:
160 mph (260 km/h)
[tr]Lowest pressure[td]918 mbar
); 27.11 inHg
[tr][td][tr][td][tr]Fatalities[td]60 total (estimated)[tr]Damage[td]$9.47 billion (1989 USD